Alabama has an embarrassment of riches in the linebacking corps for 2017, as the unit will once again combine just enough veteran doubt with a host of highly-touted newcomers to round out an explosive, diverse group.
With returning starters Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton leading the charge, it will be up to some relative unknowns to flesh out the remaining starting positions, specifically at outside linebacker. Sure, Saban will bounce Evans outside at times to utilize his elite pass rushing skills, but for the most part, Alabama will be working with fresh fodder on the edges of the linebacking corps this season. With future NFL Draft picks Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson marshaling the bulk of the playing time in the previous campaign, those all-important enforcer roles will likely be filled by newcomers.
One candidate to seize the Jack (or possibly the Sam) role is rising redshirt sophomore Anfernee Jennings (6-3, 264 pounds), a bruising ‘backer in an oversized body who was big enough to be projected as a weakside defensive end coming out of high school. But anyone who knows Saban’s defense knows Jennings is just the kind of nasty, aggressive, lumber-laying player he likes to patrol the edge at the Jack position. Jennings is tailor-made for the role in size, speed, skill set and demeanor. Think Courtney Upshaw, a gifted athlete with bull-rushing power, long arms to create all-important space, and a quick first step. While maybe not quite as speedy as Williams, he makes up for the drop-off in quickness with increased bulk and a crimson-red mean streak that will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks.
Since arriving on campus as a member of the Class of 2015, Jennings has been a blip on the radar screen of most fans thanks to the more well-known senior statesmen who manned the starting ranks. However, the astute observer will know that Saban has routinely singled out Jennings since he arrived on campus as a guy with a lot of play-making ability and straight-up ferocity, a predatory linebacker in a defensive end’s body who knows how to pursue (and punish) quarterbacks. Despite his off-season reputation as an up-and-comer, Jennings has previously only been a situational player who infrequently spelled his more highly-acclaimed teammates. Now, however, with the pathway to playing time laid clear, Jennings will get an opportunity to make his own mark on Tide lore.
Though his playing time has been sparse, he is far from being a greenhorn. Jennings isn’t altogether new to the defense, as he saw some playing time in 2016. The Dadeville, AL product accounted for 19 tackles last season, including two tackles for loss and a trio of quarterback hurries. On an encouraging note, he had his best performances of the season on the biggest stages, including the opener against USC (three tackles, one tfl), against LSU (four tackles), and in the SEC Championship Game against Florida (three tackles).
Jennings has a strong first step, and while his pass rushing technique could benefit from the additional polish he’ll develop in time, he has raw talent to spare. His aggressiveness is a true weapon, as he pairs it will his size and raw brute strength to manhandle opposing blockers. Though the playing time sample size is small, he’s proven he is adept enough at setting the edge against the run to be a full-time contributor at Jack in Saban’s defense. And while he may not have the pure speed of Williams, the stocky ‘backer is an athletic big man, to say the least. As a high school tight end, he was an offensive weapon who was talented enough to record highlights like this one. Pretty impressive for a guy who goes 260 pounds-plus.
It's clear from his limited playing time that Jennings has the skills to slide into the Jack role this season as the favorite to start. That is, if he has mastered the mental side of the game that is so important in Saban’s defense. Much like the previously mentioned Anderson, Jennings goes hard…all the time. Sometimes too hard. And he does so with a chip on his shoulder, something that can represent both a blessing and a curse. Exhibit A: During a particularly difficult time in last year’s contest with rival LSU, Jennings made this ill-advised decision...suboptimal, at best. Because of an off-setting unsportsmanlike penalty on the Tigers, he avoided what could have been a catastrophic error in judgment in a very close game. Those are the kinds of immature decisions that Jennings will be required to weed out of his thought process if he’s going to be counted on as a starter this season. Though he is incredibly talent and has a good chance at taking the starting reins at either Jack or Sam, such unfortunate choices are frowned upon by Saban (to put it mildly).
There will be open competition for the Jack role, with fellow prospective OLBs like Terrell Hall and others looking to seize the opportunity. In fact, all the linebacking positions have appeared to be in situational flux throughout the spring, as Saban and staff routinely move pieces around like Bobby Fischer to find the most insurmountable defense. Last season, Saban tinkered with defensive personnel packages and plots throughout the season, and given the positional fluidity this spring, it’s a safe bet that a handful of players could well see time in three or four linebacking roles depending on the style of offense they are attempting to stop. It’s a testament to the talent base Saban has amassed in Tuscaloosa that such a thing is even possible.
But regardless of where he lines up, whether at Jack or Sam or even defensive end, expect to see Jennings take on a greater role as the quarterback-pounding hammer of the Alabama defense as the Tide marshals up for another potential title run.
(Because his college playing time has been sparse, here’s a video of Jennings during his high school days at Dadeville High School. Though one must account for the level of competition, it’s still clear in the clips what type of player Jennings can be, especially in a linebacker-centric 3-4 base system like the one Saban runs.)